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I’ve seen the future of learning – and I like it

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Through persistence, making enquiries at the right time, and a healthy dose of good luck, I was privileged to attend last month’s RSA President’s Lecture. I was pleased to do so in this, the first year of my Fellowship of this most excellent organisation. The address was given by Simon Nelson, Founder of FutureLearn. He talked about “the importance of digital technology and place-based communities of learning in meeting our future societal needs”.

I’d been keen to attend because an organisation (the RSA) whose purpose is “to create the conditions for the enlightened thinking and collaborative action needed to address today’s most pressing social challenges” – and one that will have me along for the ride – is the kind of place I want to be. I’d also heard of FutureLearn and it had piqued my interest. And, as someone who’s spent nearly a quarter of his adult life in traditional tertiary education, I was intrigued to learn what the future holds for the learning journey of Generation Z; how my son and his peers might experience university.

Like any vision of the future – particularly from an organisation whose purpose is to help actively shape that future – what Simon set out for us to see was part reality, part projection into the future. But it wasn’t like the 1950s’, Jetsons-style imaginings of the future of transport like Ford’s literally fantastic Flying Carpet Car, below. Nor was it a dystopian view of doom and gloom.

Flying Carpet Car

The principal reason for this is that FutureLearn is already delivering the future of learning today.  Born out of the firm foundations of Britain’s hugely innovative Open University, they’ve got experience and learnings from hundreds of courses already run, currently running, or on the stocks and scheduled to run. And more than 10 million people have already taken part.

What I hadn’t anticipated was that, during the course of Simon’s talk, I’d be inspired and intrigued in equal measure to sign up for a course and experience tomorrow’s learning style for myself. I’d done so before he even sat down.

I chose a course in a familiar (if rusty) area, a course called Data to Insight, created and curated by Chris Wild and Tracey Meek at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

Familiar, because I spent a lot of 2000-2007 learning how to use and deploy statistical theory, models, and tests in experimental psychology, during a masters and doctorate – and then teaching – at the University Sussex.

Familiar, because today I often gather and harness a corner of “Little Big Data” to build evidence-based narratives for companies and brands.

And rusty because it’s some time since I’ve poked under the hood of statistics to get properly down and dirty with raw data. In my storytelling based on media content analytics, I often use tools and platforms and dashboards that aim to keep the underlying statistical theories just that – underlying.

So it has been with very great pleasure that I’ve dusted off the grey matter and become familiar all over again with the theory and practice of turning raw data into insight. I appreciated the different approaches taken by Chris and Tracey, presenting the theory sometimes very differently from how Sussex psychology had first taught me.

But what was truly inspiring and exciting and new was the way in which the learning was delivered. Every Monday for the past eight weeks, an email has told me that the next module was available. With a maximum commitment of three hours each week, the videos, articles, tests, and exercises using the bespoke iNZight software – good pun, chaps! – could be tackled at my own pace, whenever I chose, not when the lecturers had timetabled the course to run. If we wanted to become hands-on Hans Roslings, we were being empowered to do so very much at our own pace.

Sometimes, I’d run at the 12-20 components of each weekly module in a day or two at most. Sometimes I’d do a couple of elements a day. And sometimes I’d leave everything to the weekend and crack through them as the early evenings drew in.

But even if I hadn’t completed the tasks within a particular week, there was no sense of pressure that I was Doing It Wrong. Quite the opposite. The tutors and their materials made it quite clear I could do the course entirely at my own pace. Though like The Grand Tour – the new Clarkson/May/Hammond vehicle on amazon Instant Video – they wouldn’t let me race ahead, only releasing one module each week.

The means of delivery was totally different from any education I’ve received before, having been campus-based throughout my three degrees. As all learning was online, I didn’t get much – anything – out of the course socially. But then that wasn’t why I did it – to become socialised, to meet my future wife, to make lifelong friendships. And there is a big community part of FutureLearn’s philosophy and approach which I didn’t really engage in at any great depth. So I’m sure I could have got more out of the course than the pure learning and refreshers in statistics if I’d actively engaged with the community.

This may very well be the future or an aspect of the future of education. And from the points of view of engagement, delivery, and learning, it was all rather satisfactory. I had some niggles with the software and some of the ways in which information was conveyed. But overall, this appears to be a properly-functioning, motivating environment in which to learn.

I don’t know what it was in Simon’s delivery that made me sign up as he spoke. But I’m very glad I did, because I now have first-hand experience of what it’s like to be part of the MOOC movement. And in the interests of CPD, I’m now considering what course I might do next, from preventing the zika virus to an introduction to Japanese subcultures, histology, gravity, or cyber security.

Sam Knowles
Sam Knowles is Founder & MD of Insight Agents. He helps companies, brands, and third-sector organisations find simple, true, and authentic language. This gives them the tools, permission, and confidence they need to communicate effectively. His purpose is to help organisations talk like people.

Sam has recently written a book called “Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful and Purposeful Stories with Data”. It will be published in April 2018 by Routledge.